The season is young. As of Thursday morning, there have been 324 games played, with 2136 remaining. Still, a lot can be learned from the first month of the season.
Basketball Insiders kicked off its new series, “Areas of Concern”, earlier this week to highlight issues we should keep an eye on as the season progresses. This installment focuses on the Atlantic Division. Like most divisions, the Atlantic Division has experienced its share of surprises. But things could be more chaotic (e.g., the Southeast or the Northwest). There have been blips in Boston and Philadelphia out of the gate; but beyond those teams, everything is mostly as expected. Let’s examine some specific concerns:
76ers Guards Must Learn to Play Together
The 76ers have a few problems, but their most glaring issue is with their backcourt. Specifically, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons and their ability to remain on the court with one another.
Fultz is shooting 30.8 percent on three-pointers so far this season while launching only 1.1 threes per game. And Simmons has totally disengaged with the long ball, choosing to shoot zero three-pointers in 341 minutes. And that makes it challenging to have them on the court at the same time. Defenses play off of them on the perimeter and go under ball screens, which clogs up the paint and makes life more difficult for their lead scorer – Joel Embiid. Even Head Coach Brett Brown conceded that the two must improve their “shooting and spacing” earlier this week to news.com.au.
But more troubling than their shooting is how they affect one another. The 76ers are a minus 6.3 when they share the floor thus far this season. And while Fultz is still seen as a project by most, Ben Simmons is viewed as a star. And Fultz’s presence isn’t exactly helping Simmons.
Looking back to last season, Simmons averaged 22.1 points and 11.6 assists per game per 100 possessions without Fultz in the lineup, and only 15.2 points and 8.9 assists per 100 possessions with him. While both players still have ample time to develop into well-rounded stars, the 76ers organization needs to figure out how the two can coexist more effectively sooner than later. The success of the season might be at stake.
Kawhi Leonard Already Missing Games
The Toronto Raptors haven’t had too much to worry about thus far. Through 12 games, the Raptors have 11 wins. They are the seventh highest scoring team in the league (117.1 points per game). They have the third-best offensive rating, ninth best defensive rating and the fourth best average margin of victory.
But there is one potentially troublesome item: Kawhi Leonard has missed four of the Raptors’ 12 games.
It could be strictly precautionary. But having just returned from a quad injury that cost him most of the 2017-18 season, one might wonder about his overall health. Leonard did recently jam his ankle, but that is unrelated to the injury that led to him missing time last season. And Coach Nick Nurse continues to state that Leonard’s quadriceps are healthy and that he is taking it “game by game.”
While it is likely an overreaction to worry about Leonard’s durability at this point, it is something worth keeping an eye on. Especially considering Leonard is the centerpiece of the Raptors’ offense and the key to them competing for a championship.
Knicks Need to Move Courtney Lee
The New York Knicks are in development mode. And while they seem committed to giving their young core time to develop, there is one noticeable outlier– Courtney Lee.
Courtney Lee has yet to appear in a game this season for the New York Knicks due to a mysterious neck injury. That isn’t terribly unusual – and it even allows them to grant more playing time to the rookies. But Lee and the Knicks are clearly heading in opposite directions. While the Knicks hope to develop the league’s third-youngest roster, Lee is an accomplished 33-year-old veteran hoping to compete in the playoffs.
The Knicks would probably prefer to accommodate Lee and move on from the $12.76 million they owe him next season, but Lee must first prove he can still be a valuable contributor. Both parties would be best served by Lee returning sooner than later and exhibiting his three-and-D skill set.
Celtics’ Production Hurt by Return of Stars
The Celtics started the season a mildly disappointing 6-4. They have played a difficult schedule so far, with losses against the Nuggets, Pacers and Raptors. But regardless of outcomes, the team clearly needs to get its house in order.
The source of their struggles is well-documented – the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They are players that most any team would love to incorporate, but their respective returns have had residual effects.
Irving is mostly back to his old self. While he is scoring only 19.2 points per game – his lowest average since his rookie campaign– he has come on of late. Additionally, much of his drop off in scoring can be attributed to the abundance of weapons on the Celtics’ roster. But his play isn’t the issue.
Terry Rozier filled in beautifully in Irving’s absence, averaging 16.5 points in the playoffs last season in 36.6 minutes per game. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier’s opportunities have diminished dramatically. Rozier will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and it was never clear if he was interested in remaining in Boston behind Irving. But with Irving back in the lineup, Rozier is averaging only 7.5 points in 22.7 minutes per game – thus, hurting his trade value in the short-term and hurting the possibility that he re-signs in the long-term. And teams around the league have taken notice of his dissatisfaction, which will only hurt his trade value to the club.
Hayward’s conundrum is more complicated. Yes, his production is down. He is playing 25 minutes a game and tallying 10.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Comparatively, he averaged 20.3 points per game in 35.5 minutes over his last three seasons in Utah. But he is only 10 games into his return from a horrific injury. This is mildly alarming, but not worth mentioning on its own.
But there’s a butterfly effect of sorts going on in Boston. Allocating 25 minutes per game to Hayward takes playing time away from others. Jayson Tatum’s recent slump is probably a separate issue given that he is seeing more playing time than he received last season, but Jaylen Brown is a whole other story.
Brown, averaged 14.5 points per game last season with a PER of 13.6. And remember, Hayward was injured early on in the first quarter on the first game of the 2017-18 season, so last season was virtually a year without Hayward. This season, Brown is down to 11.4 points and a PER of 8.7 – a significant drop off for a rising star.
And the effect on Marcus Smart is noteworthy, too. Smart’s scoring is down to five points per game (down from 10.2 last season), and his three-point shooting is down to an anemic 18.5 percent (down from 30.1 percent).
The Celtics will likely figure things out because good players led by good coaches typically get good results. But their slow start is definitely cause for concern.
The Nets Are Playing Too Good for their Own Good
Hot take – the Nets aren’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. At 5-6, the Nets are in the midst of their best start to a season since the 2012-13 campaign.
The team has a good amount young talent headlined by: Caris LeVert (20.5 points per game), Jarret Allen (11.3 points 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) and Spencer Dinwiddie (14.1 points per game on 43.1 percent from three-point range).
There is also added depth in the form of Joe Harris (55.4 percent from three-point range), D’Angelo Russel ( 15.4 points and 5.1 assists per game) and others.
What’s more, the team plays a great style of basketball for the modern NBA, placing sixth in pace in the league. But it’s still probably not enough to qualify for the playoffs. And even if it is, what’s the goal? To be a middle-tier team that gets eliminated from the playoffs each year?
The Nets have a bright future, but how much better could they be by adding a free agent or two this offseason, as well as a high draft pick? And remember, all the talent the Nets have amassed was facilitated through other teams’ picks that they traded for; the Nets haven’t owned their own pick outright since 2013. So just imagine what their front office could do with a lottery pick.
Many of the concerns listed above will work themselves out. And they will be replaced by new issues – that’s the nature of the beast. But some might linger and throw off a team’s season.
NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard
The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.
At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.
Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.
The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.
He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.
“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.
Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.
“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”
There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.
Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.
Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”
Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.
Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.
But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.
There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.
But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.
“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”
But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.
More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.
“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.
He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.
NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up
Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.
When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.
This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.
Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.
“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”
The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!
Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.
“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”
No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.
“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.
After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.
Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.
Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.
“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”
Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.
Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.
In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.
To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.
“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”
The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.
“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”
NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards
Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.
From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.
Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.
He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.
Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.
And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.
Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.
“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”
But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.
“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”
Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.
“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”
And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.
While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.
“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”
To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.
Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.
“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”
If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.
Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.
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